Give wild horses their land back

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U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar’s ode to the “majestic” wild horse, and his description of how the federal government must manage its population in his Jan. 14 Times Op-Ed article, comes across to the average reader as a reasonable and sympathetic approach to the problems faced by the American mustang. What Salazar doesn’t mention is that the bureaucracies now under his control -- and the business interests they service -- have created the problems the Interior secretary says he wants to solve.

Today, like any population that stands in the way of those who covet their land, the wild horses continue to be removed from their range land and tragically herded down the trail to oblivion. With little basis in sound science, the horse has been scapegoated for environmental degradation. Meanwhile, government audits have found that the Bureau of Land Management has been curbing wild horse populations in areas where private livestock grazing is increasing. Cattle grazing on public land -- easily a much bigger cause of rang land deterioration -- outnumber wild horses by at least 200 to 1.

Salazar writes that since the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act was enacted in 1971 -- which allowed wild horses to live free on lands where they existed at the time -- the Bureau of Land Management has helped wild horse populations thrive and recover. Salazar has a curious definition of “thrive” and “recover.” Since 1971, the BLM has systematically whittled away the act’s protections, with about 47,000 wild horses now kept in short- and long-term holding pens and just 31,000 left roaming free on public lands.


Salazar’s suggestion that horse adoption is part of the answer is perhaps his most outrageous one. In 1997, a BLM official told the Associated Press that roughly 90% of adopted wild horses ended up going to slaughter. While some horses are adopted and do adapt to a domestic lifestyle, tens of thousands remain in holding. The government spends more than $30 million a year to house captured horses, a useless expense considering that there is no need to find new land for the American mustang. The land designated for them in 1971 hasn’t gone anywhere; instead, wild horses have been permanently removed from nearly 20 million acres of their original herd areas. Some of these lands have been sold and made available for livestock, but they have never been reopened to the horses.

We do appreciate Salazar’s interest in “new partnerships” and “new thinking,” and we certainly look forward to working together on a viable alternative to the current management paradigm. But using progressive language is a far cry from implementing an ethically sustainable program. Indeed, a U.S. District Court judge recently said that Salazar’s proposed “plan” to relocate wild horses to holding facilities in the Midwest and east of the Mississippi River violates federal law.

Salazar encourages the public to get involved by coming out to the range and helping to care for the horses. This is a nice sentiment, but does Salazar seriously think he can address a “problem” that includes thousands of animals and hundreds of thousands of acres by getting a few environmentally inclined Americans to visit the range?

Perhaps most poisonous is the BLM’s misrepresentation of wild American horses as an invasive species. In reality, horses originated in North America between 1 million and 2 million years ago. These ancient North American horses, which are believed to have died out around the end of the last Ice Age, are biologically the same as the horses that arrived here about 10,000 years later. Native to this continent, the horses that have returned to their natural state over the past few hundred years, on our vast remote ranges, represent the current adaptation of the North American wild horse.

The BLM must halt its horse roundups until the population of wild horses and burros on public lands can be independently assessed. It ought to abandon its haphazard way of corralling and housing horses and perfect methods to progressively manage populations on the range.

A 1990 study by the U.S. General Accountability Office has already found that cattle and sheep grazing -- not free-roaming wild horses -- damage range and riparian areas the most. Old and failed policies must stop now so that we don’t continue to create bigger problems.


Secretary Salazar, please stop galloping in the wrong direction.

Jack Carone is chief operating officer of Return to Freedom, a wild horse sanctuary in Santa Barbara County.